Suzanne Moon’s Technology and Ethical Idealism: A History of Development in the Netherlands East Indies examines Dutch development efforts in the Indies from 1900 to 1942 through several distinct phases of development schemes. First, Melchior Treub’s techno-determinist “better seeds” project sought to purify rice lines at highly centralized experiment stations staffed by credentialed plant biologists; the scientific superiority of these efforts and the obvious material superiority of these seeds would, apparently, be sufficient to cause their widespread dissemination among Indonesian farmers. Recognizing the social and ecological limitations of Treub’s purely technical intervention, Hermann Lovink’s decentralizing beliefs in “close contact”, while maintaining support for the project of “better seeds”, sought to add to this purely technical project an insistence on local particularity and indigenous intimacy resulting in widely dispersed seed gardens, demonstration plots, and increasing numbers of European and indigenous agricultural extensionists. Later, beginning in 1918, J. Sabinga Mulder rejected the possibility of small-holder development and instead argued (he was an ex-sugar planter) that the indigenous population would be more successfully economically developed through plantation wage labor under which assumption he set out to (disastrously) establish a large-scale fully-mechanized rice plantation system a la California on Sumatra. In the aftermath of Mulder’s blunder, L. Koch’s and T. J. Lekkerkerker’s “betting on the strong” approach to development followed, under the influence of J. H. Boeke’s “dual-economies” thesis, which posited that there simultaneously existed in colonies a globally-integrated European market economy and a local indigenous economy replete with its own (quite different) economic logics of land, labor, capital, and value. According to this thesis, development projects of the past sputtered because they operated under the assumption that the indigenous population was responsive to economic stimuli and incentives inherent to the global market economy when in fact they were, in the main, participants in an entirely different economy with a different set of needs and values. The “strong” Koch and Lekkerkerker were betting on were those indigenous farmers with a foot in both sides of the dual economy — wealthier, with larger landholdings and access to more credit — and therefore supposedly more likely to adopt Dutch agrotechnological interventions (and then serve as demonstrative exemplars for other farmers to emulate). In this way, over the course of the first half of the 20th-century, Dutch development schemes in Indonesia evolved from targeting technologies, to targeting technologies in specific locales and social conditions, to targeting technologies in specific locales and social conditions and toward specific (more receptive) recipients.
There is, in hindsight, a certain laughable naivete to titling a colonial development approach “Ethical Idealism” and I am curious to learn how this mentality manifested in other (non-technical) colonial development goals. Moon carefully points out along the way the manner in which the technical manifestations of Ethical Idealism contrasted with other manifestations (notably, its technical projects seemed never to resort to coercion to achieve their adoption goals). Ethical Idealism seemed to bear the brunt of responsibility for the communist uprisings of the latter 1920s, but it is not clear how this responsibility came to be associated with Ethical Idealism’s technical projects and one assumes that political or economic Ethical Idealism projects might have been more straightforwardly responsible. I am also curious about the intellectual historical context of Ethical Idealism. Where are these people getting this idea? Was it rooted in the demonstrable failure of some preexisting development regime in the Netherlands East Indies?
At the heart of this story, running as a throughline amongst all of the agrotechnological development interventions of the first half of the 20th-century is an inherent conflict between the welfare of the indigenous population and the welfare of the colonial state. Time and again development projects, both proposed and enacted, come into conflict with the interests of European cash-croppers or the colonial exchequer. As Moon summarizes it in her conclusion, “The bigger question, therefore, was not whether the indigenous people should transform, but whether they should try to do so while still under colonial control, building their power through ownership of industry . . . or biding their time until a nationalist revolution would enable them to both fully direct and benefit from those changes . . ..” Over 40 years, Dutch development planners attempted to contemplate every conceivable variable for their failure: indigenous lethargy, technological appropriateness, ecological compatibility, project scale, economic incentive structure, transmigration, and others, but there was one variable they never contemplated — coloniality. What if the indigenous population was disinclined to participate, or the technologies were never performant, or the economics never added up, or ecological compatibility could not be attained, because of the colonial context of the intervention?
One final lingering question Moon leaves the reader is “[w]hether these colonial ideals did or did not translate into post-colonial politics and practice.” They seem, from the historiography of post-war international development to clearly have translated to those kinds of projects, but of more pressing interest is whether Dutch colonial development ideals inflected postcolonial Indonesian endogenous economic development projects. If development projects almost invariably fail in colonial contexts because of intrinsic conflicts between the colonizing executor and colonized target of those projects, what happens when residues of colonial development mentalities persist in post-colonial national economic development plans?
- 1 – This book investigates the foundations of developmentalist thinking that shaped the turn-of-the-century colonial reforms called the Ethical policies, and it explores the mutual interaction of Ethical idealism, day-to-day colonial politics, and technological practices that produced a heightened political commitment to, and the institutionalization of, technological development.
- 1-2 – Indigenous farmers’ response to Ethically inflected efforts suggest what value indigenous communities assigned to development programs and the accompanying Ethical baggage. Local peoples critically, if subtly, influenced the colonial experts who worked with them and ultimately shaped expert thinking about what direction development should take in the Indies.
- 2 – ‘Native development’ programs based on Ethical ideals therefore did more than simply drop new technologies into the colony; they also constructed a relationship with the indigenous people who were meant to serve as on-going conduits for Western technologies and techniques.
- Dutch experts, who saw both technical change and close contact as requirements for true development in an indigenous society, embraced small-scale development projects attuned to the social, economic, and ecological differences across the colony, eschewing larger, showier projects as ineffective or even potentially damaging. This is not the story that existing literature might lead us to expect.
- 3 – The agricultural extension service in the Indies promoted improved rice production across a broad area, but they did so using heterogeneous solutions, each of which extension specialists considered applicable to only a small area, sometimes no more than a few villages. They sought not a few, broadly applicable solutions, but many solutions, each one attuned to local circumstances.
- 6 – Fully acknowledging the debts this study owes to Van Doorn’s analysis, it nevertheless takes a somewhat different course, by investigating the socio-technical character of development technologies, especially the way these technologies and ideals of development were embedded in the colony’s broader political life.
- 23 – Given this framing of the colony’s problems, technological solutions offered obvious benefits. By reshaping indigenous agriculture, the food supply might eventually be able to keep pace with population growth, and indigenous prosperity would improve at the same time.
- 30 – Treub argued for science as the only solution for contemporary agricultural problems by framing those problems as entirely new. Just as export producers had used science to help them deal with stiff international competition after years of working in relatively uncompetitive markets, so, he claimed, would science help indigenous producers faced with the newly declining availability of land and increasing population. Arguing that indigenous people had never needed to work hard or innovate to take advantage of the easily gained, natural bounty of the tropics, Treub dismissed traditional practices as inadequate for the new problems of land scarcity and food shortage. Trial and error, conservatism, and ignorance had become luxuries.
- 34 – Treub employed an ideology of applied science, in which scientists would create knowledge in one place, the laboratories and fields of Buitenzorg, and later apply it to the outside world. Trueb, like many scientists considered the ‘applying’ largely unproblematic and insisted that getting the science right at the front end was the most critical part of the work. Yet in his critics’ opinion, Treub was missing the point. Few doubted that he could produce science. However, by neglecting to address the relationship between his Department and indigenous people, his critics did wonder whether he could produce development.
- 49 – It is a fair question to ask whether such selected varieties ought to be considered technologies. I consider them technologies because they require human intervention to both define and materialize.
- 50 – Treub created what I call a ‘better seeds’ philosophy of development, in which selected varieties of seed would become good development technologies. Simply give farmers better seeds, he argued, and they would easily improve yields and standards of living, without provoking resistance . . ..
- 51 – While Treub emphasized the simplicity of selected varieties as a development technology, in reality the Department would have to exert considerable effort to create a system in which selected rice varieties could become an everyday part of farming on Java. In order for selected varieties of rice to function as development technologies, they needed to become part of the farming system, that is, part of a stable network of technologies people, and places, including agricultural experts, experimental sites and practices, a classification system, Javanese farmers willing to use new varieties, and rice seed itself. In the absence of a stable network supporting them, selected varieties would be useless for the project of development.
- 61 – The results from the proefvelden fed a growing conviction among agricultural experts that improving rice productivity and producing development on Java required not a small handful of high-yielding new varieties used across the island, but many local solutions tailored to a given area’s specific conditions. They began to embrace a smaller-scale way of thinking about development, in which they would fine-tune the choice of technology (like a particular variety of seed or cultivation technique) for specific areas. This fine-tuning made it more necessary than ever to interact with farmers, who could teach extension specialists about local conditions, practices, and preferences. The proefvelden became a site of two-way communication, not the unidirectional outreach that planners had imagined, and farmers and experts came increasingly to be collaborators on the project of development.
- 106 – Combining the dual economy and agricultural economic analyses, experts in the 1920s began to argue that the kind of development that could produce notable jumps in prosperity required not just the right choice of technology, but also the right choice of farmer.
- 107 – Progress in indigenous agriculture required not simply that farmers be exposed to Western practices, but that they be tutored away from their traditional economic and social assumptions about labor and work on the farm.
- In other words, in order to technologically colonize them, you need to culturally colonize them
- 147-48 – The bigger question, therefore, was not whether the indigenous people should transform, but whether they should try to do so while still under colonial control, building their power through ownership of industry, as Thamrin suggested, or biding their time until a nationalist revolution would enable them to both fully direct and benefit from those changes, as Hatta and Sjahrir endorsed.
- Did this ever enter into the development calculus of Dutch bureaucrats? That colonialism itself, or Indonesian resistance to colonialism could account for the failure of the various development schemes?
- 149 – Whether these colonial ideals did or did not translate into post-colonial politics and practice is a question that requires further investigation. This is particularly true with respect to the impressive body of knowledge that scientific and technical experts acquired regarding the ecological, social, and economic conditions on Java. How this knowledge did or did not get employed during Indonesia’s later history of development, especially during the introduction of the Green Revolution is not yet clear. There are some hints, however, that colonial assumptions and beliefs didn’t simply disappear.
- Further investigation might also reveal substantive connections between colonial practice and present-day international development.